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What Are The Chances Of An IRS Audit?

Many times, and often moments before a client signs their tax return, we get asked the question: “What are the chances of an IRS audit”?

While there is no standard formula to quantify audit risk, the Internal Revenue Service releases each fiscal year their IRS Data Book, which does offer some clues. Of course, if an 86-page tome of just-released audit statistics isn’t exactly at the top of your summer reading list, here are some of the more interesting highlights we’ve cherry-picked for you.

Number of IRS audits has been going down

During the 2018 fiscal year, the IRS audited almost one million tax returns that were filed during the 2017 calendar year.  This amounts to about .5% of the 195.75 million tax returns filed that year.

  • Type of Audit (of those one million audits):
    • 74.8% were correspondence audits. These are performed via mail and are typically much smaller in scope. A typical example would be a request for charitable contribution support, medical deduction support, business expense receipts, etc. (We refer to this type as the CVS “Minute Clinic” of audits.)
    • 25.2% were field audits. These are performed by a revenue agent, in person and on-site, and are typically much larger in scope.
  • Type of Taxpayer (of those one million audits):
    • 90% are individual tax return audits
    • 4.4% are employment (Medicare, social security, etc.) tax return audits
    • 2% are partnership and s-corporation tax return audits
    • 1.6% are c-corporation tax return audits
    • 2% are estate, gift, trust & other tax return audits

So to answer the often-asked question, a taxpayer’s chance of being audited is generally pretty small – roughly 1 in 200. That may bring relief to some, and perhaps embolden others. But to those who see an opening to get creative, the book’s section on criminal investigations may give you pause.

In 2018, 2,886 IRS investigations were initiated; 3,051 investigations were completed (including those conducted across multiple fiscal years); 2,011 federal indictments were handed down; 1,879 taxpayers were convicted; and 1,732 were incarcerated. In other words, if you are indicted for a tax crime, your chances are pretty good that you will end up in jail.

In addition, certain income-based circumstances typically send audit risks higher in various categories from year to year. Last year, individuals reporting no income (or a loss) had a 2 percent audit rate; those with incomes over $1 million, 3.2 percent; and those making over $10 million, a 6.7 percent rate. Estate, gift and other tax returns had an average overall audit rate of just .44 percent last year; but for estates over $10 million, the rate jumped to 31 percent. C-corporation returns averaged a .9 percent audit rate; but those reporting over $10 million in assets suffered an 8.1 percent audit rate.

How can I reduce my chance of an audit?

Other than ensuring that your tax return is complete and accurate (which is why we put all our clients’ returns through a rigorous quality-control review process), there isn’t much else you can do.  At the same time, we believe every taxpayer has a right to use the Internal Revenue Code to their benefit in order to legally take advantage of all available deductions, credits, transaction structuring, and so forth.

Like anybody of laws, the Internal Revenue Code is not always black and white.  There is often interpretation involved – which means taking a position that might be considered aggressive does not necessarily make it wrong.

At Withum, we take special care to guide clients through the grey areas while simultaneously operating within our profession’s strict standards.  Ultimately, a large deduction or a low tax liability may indeed increase your chances of an audit, but that should never scare you, the taxpayer, into not claiming that which is rightfully yours.

For example, a taxpayer making $150,000 contribution to a 501(c)(3) charitable organization in a year where they happened to go from $1,000,000 down to $200,000 of taxable income would certainly increase their chances of an audit. However, because that contribution was made (and the proper support was furnished), the risk of audit is no reason to not claim the deduction due them.

What should I do if I am audited?

Despite relatively low odds, the audit lottery is played every year (subject to the statute of limitations which generally expires 3 years after filing a tax return). So, what do you do if you get the dreaded audit notice?

  1. Do not panic. We are here to support you.  As your tax preparer, we never sign a return that we wouldn’t be comfortable defending under audit.
  2. Send the IRS notice you’ve received in the mail directly to us. From there, we will prepare a Power of Attorney designating us to represent you through the entire process. We will handle all contact with the Revenue Agent.  In virtually all cases, you will never have to meet or talk to the Agent.
  3. Once contact is made, we will receive the “Information Document Request” (standard IRS form) from the Agent and will begin preparing the responses, organizing documentation, etc. We will then meet with the Agent, either at our office or theirs (but not yours).
  4. Depending on the scope of the audit, the process may take a month, a year, or more. Once all requests are satisfied, the Agent will issue a closing letter.  This letter will either indicate any adjustments or it will be a “no-change letter” (the latter is what we most often see).
  5. If there are no changes, the Agent will be banished back to the nondescript office building from whence they came, bound by the government’s red tape until they are sent to torture another unlucky victim. Or at least this is what we imagine happens!
  6. If there are changes, we will meet with you to discuss the cost/benefits of agreeing with, settling, or appealing the changes. Ultimately, any disagreement could lead to tax court, but this is extremely rare.

While the likelihood of being audited is low, it is not zero. And so, if you are unfortunate enough to win the government’s lamest lottery, you can at least rest assured that we are here to advise, support, and defend you under audit. For additional support or questions, please fill in the form below and our team will be in touch.


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